When Slaves were crowned as Sultans of Delhi

History Contributor
تاج محل
TajMahal: Sir pollution

There is a ring of incredulity in the term Slave Dynasty. Dynasties are meant to be of emperors, kings and tycoons, while the word ‘slave’ justifiably conjures up images that represent the extreme opposite. Yet the entry Slave Dynasty in Encyclopaedia Britannica marks it as a ‘line of sultans at Delhi, India, that lasted for nearly a century’!

Contributions of Slave Dynasty

Incredible India indeed! Well, slaves becoming powerful kings are rare in world history, but not unheard of. The Mamluk Sultanate of Cairo, Egypt, is one of the major examples of slaves occupying the throne. But this Sultanate was founded by Izz al-Din Aibak in 1250.

History states, even before that, arguably the first slave in history to become a king, had seized the reigns of power a good four and a half decades ago. He was Qutub al-Din Aubak, who reigned over northern India after the death of his master Muiz ud-Din Muhammad Ghuri, a sultan of the Ghurid empire, which was based in Afghanistan, and in later years expanded up to Lahore, in present-day Pakistan, and beyond.

When Mohammad Ghori died in 1206 CE., he left no male heir to succeed him. So it was the desire of Muhammad Ghuri, that Qutbuddin succeeded him and his formal accession took place on 24th June, 1206.

What followed over the next 90 years is in a sense remarkable. Three rulers, none the blood-relation of another, Qutab al-Din Aibak, Iltutmish and Ghyas al-Din Balban, and all of them slaves in their early life, built a major empire centring the Indian capital of Delhi. And in between Iltutmish and Balban, came to power a person, no less fascinating, Raziya Sultan, the only female Sultan of India!

The Slave Dynasty is remarkable historically simply because, it defeated the very idea of hereditary kingship, so deeply rooted in ancient and medieval Indian history. None of these rulers were born with a silver spoon in his mouth. All that they achieved, they achieved by sheer dint of their capabilities.

Early Life of Qutab al-Din Aibak

Born C1150 in Turkistan, central Asia, Qutub was separated from his family and ended up in the slave market, and was taken to Nishabur in eastern Iran. True, this childhood trauma was mitigated to a point when he was purchased by a kind Qazi, Fakhruddin Abdul Aziz Kufi. The Qazi gave the boy good education and martial training. Soon, however, he was again back in the slave market, being sold from one master to another, until Muiz al-Din Ghuri purchased him.

Qutub al-Din never looked back, and such impressed his master with his many abilities that by 1206 he was raised to the position of Malik, an informal sovereign over Muiz al-Din’s territories in north-western India. Aibak finally assumed independent power after the assassination of Muiz al-Din, in 1206, thus founding a regime, curiously known in Indian history as the Slave Dynasty, the only one ever. All contemporary chroniclers of his regime have described him as a brave, generous and just man. Qutub al-Din had a sad untimely death, falling from his horse, while playing Chaugan, polo, in 1210.

How Iltutmish rose to power?

The sudden death of Qutub left the kingdom without a properly nominated successor. The nobles decided to put Aram Shah on the throne, who turned out to be an extremely incompetent ruler. And in eight months the nobles thought it prudent to invite Iltutmish to the throne.

Again, a young man, sold to slavery in his childhood, landing up under Qutub al-Din’s ownership after several masters, and earning the Sultan’s confidence and love through his capabilities, a purely self-made person, became the Sultan of India.

He ruled till 1236, vastly expanding the territory of the Sultanate and established himself as one of the ablest kings of the Delhi Sultanate.

The next decade was marred by palace coups and conspiracies, with one person grabbing the throne to be soon removed by another, until his grandson Nasiruddin Muhammad became the Sultan in 1246.

Balban as ruler

Nasiruddin did stabilize the political turmoil in Delhi, but it must be noted, that this was achieved largely with the person who was appointed his Naib, the deputy ruler, Ghyas al-Din Balban, who soon became the de facto ruler until becoming the Sultan himself in 1266.

Balban was among the 40 slaves purchased by Iltutmish several years ago, in 1232. His rise to power was equally extraordinary, rising from being a water carrier to the position of the Naib of the Sultan of Delhi, and eventually the Sultan himself. His death in 1287 ended one of the unique line of rulers in the Indian subcontinent.


(Written by Author and Translator Nilanjan Hajra)

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